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Pangloss avatar 3:25 PM on 03.16.2010  (server time)
On FFXIII reviews

Be it known that on this day, scant hours beyond the Ides of March, I did peruse the inimitable Mr. Sterling's opinion-blog regarding the Thirteenth Fantastic Finale. And be ye warned! I have opinions.

There's a massive caveat for what I'm going to write in this space: I haven't finished this game yet. But I've got enough under my belt so far that I think I can offer some rudimentary opinioneering on how I feel about this game.

First, and also foremost!
I have no idea how I would approach this thing, were it actually my job to write game reviews. If we look at the philosophical purpose of game reviews as simply posting our opinions of a game on the internet and having enough readers to make it on Metacritic, then I know more or less what I would say about it. And I will, after a couple more paragraphs! But if we take the school of thought that a review constitutes an informed recommendation to consumers, then it's a little trickier.

You see, I can't think of something to say about FFXIII that could be summed up as a purchase recommendation from 1-10 on a sliding scale. I can't even say "If you liked Game Z, you'll like this," because there's a good chance here that it isn't the case. The reactions to this game have been pretty sharply divided, and not even with respect to demographic. It isn't 'for' the hardcore Final Fantasy fan, there's a schism there. And it isn't 'for' people who love JRPGs, schisms here also. And it doesn't seem to be universally repulsing people who aren't JRPG/FF fans, my brother being among those who don't usually like 'this sort of thing' but like FFXIII. Hell, I'm not sure there even is a 'this sort of thing'.

In short, what we have is a pretty divisive game. And while I seem to be on the far side of that divide from most people talking about it, I can't say that they're wrong. Practically every point Jim raised in his review struck me as completely legitimate. Do I disagree with him? Well, I like the game. If I don't think everything else he wrote in the review was wrong, I'm not sure 'disagree' is the right word for it. I'm not sure what perspective I'm looking at this game from where Jim and I could say the exact same things about it, right up until we talk about how we feel about it.

For my part, I've definitely enjoyed my time with the game. The story has been revealed very piecemeal, and one thing I actually love is that the story doesn't open with Lightning sitting on the train, monologuing about everything that's happened in the past couple days and the history of the world. Here we're dropping in on established personas, in an established universe, and it makes it feel like they're not performing for a camera. So I don't know why, in the third chapter, they knock it the fuck off and start telling, in excruciating detail, exactly what the fuck the deal is with all these Fal'Cie and l'Cie, OVER AND OVER. For each character. Even when they're talking to themselves. Stop it, it was bad enough the first time. To cut a huge paragraph short, I like parts of what I see, story-wise, but this story could have been handled much, MUCH better, and with more consistency. And I can't believe for a second that Sazh and Vanille were thought up by the same writer.

Snow is that 'Broseph' guy you keep hearing about.

The linearity is completely understandable. Budgetary concerns (a reason for the lack of wide-openness I've heard a lot) aside, there's a growing trend in game design wherein you take what is working only some of the time and get that part the fuck out of your game. In our current topic, towns are a good example. They're very nice when they do what they're supposed to, and can provide a large amount of immersion and diversion. But when they don't work (and as much as I love side-quests and big hub towns, it happens a lot in RPGs), they're really goddamned frustrating; I do not want to cruise the city for half a fucking hour looking for that NPC I missed the first time through so I can continue the story. From a design perspective, if you cut out what isn't core to your narrative, and isn't fun 100% of the time, you have a tighter, more focused game that fires all cylinders, every time. Square-Enix's application of this principle wasn't completely consistent or successful (see my complaints about the story above), but the focused gameplay shows me what they're going for.

Which leads me to what is working for me in this game. Combat is working. COMBAT. Ostensibly, a JRPG should be all about the narrative and the characters, and hitting things with sharp sticks should come second, or maybe even third. That's not happening here: the pictures are very pretty, but the combat so far is making me think an awful lot for merely requiring a couple button presses every few seconds. More articulate voices have written about this, so I'll spare you most of my thoughts on the matter, but one bit of the system stuck out in particular to me: In part of the 3rd chapter (I think?) I was presented with a team makeup that was, well, it wasn't ideal. You see, I had a squad without a single Commando, and I was facing enemies that you practically HAD to stagger to kill. As fast as I could attack, the chain meter would just reset without that Commando holding it in place, and I couldn't get a stagger. Then, suddenly, I had the brilliant idea of [i]waiting[/] to attack. Which worked beautifully. When was the last fucking time I had to decide NOT to attack at every available opportunity in an RPG? For a system that at first glance seems to take me OUT of the action, I seem to be having to pay very careful attention. This seemed to irritate Mr. Sterling. I love it.

Of course, the combat isn't everything, no matter how pretty is. And the flaws in the overall experience are numerous and easy to spot. So I suppose what I'm curious about is what perspective I'm taking on this game that's allowing me to enjoy the hell out of it, where so many others can't. And I don't really have a good answer for that. I'll probably revisit the subject after I've finished the game (as though this wasn't tl;dr enough!), and even if it does go completely south from here, I will finish it. I've played worse games to completion and had fun doing it.

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